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Junk Journal Frequently Asked Questions

Junk Journal

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So we’ve talked a little about how to preserve old photos, documents and books, what the biggest risks to them are, and how you can keep them safe. Now it’s time to talk about some things that are specific to the junk journaling world, given the fact that many people who junk journal also love to add vintage touches to their journals.

I could probably write a book on this (this is the kind of stuff I geek out about after all), but for now I’m going to try and help out by answering some of the most common questions I see. So lets get started on answering those junk journal frequently asked questions… 

(Transparency note: I often link to resources in my blog posts and these are sometimes affiliate links. That means if you choose to purchase through my links, I may make a small commission through no extra charge to you. You can read more in my privacy and disclosure policy.)


How does coffee/tea dying affect my journal/photos/old papers?

There are lots of different variations on this question, but the overarching thing people seem to want to know is how coffee/tea dying will affect their journals long-term.  My answer, generally speaking, is that coffee/tea dying will speed up the rate of deterioration and potentially harm photos and papers.

I say this because coffee and tea are both acidic. Acids will cause papers to yellow and become brittle, and can do the same to photos. This means soaking acid-free paper in coffee or tea, by definition causes them to absorb acid and makes them no longer acid-free. If you use coffee/tea to dye your standard run of the mill paper that is not acid-free, you’ve increased the acid content. That means that the rate and extent of deterioration has been increased.

Have you ever seen a newspaper after a few years? The downward spiral of deterioration happens pretty quickly. This is because newspapers are made with low grade mass produced paper that was meant to be cheap and disposable. The process used to make that sort of paper leaves a high acid content in the paper, and thus it quickly yellows and starts to fall apart.  

If you’ve ever left a piece of newspaper up against another piece of paper while the newspaper has aged, you’ll notice marks and discoloration on the piece of paper it’s touching as well. That’s how the deterioration of one piece can affect those around it.

The same will happen with most paper that has a high acid content, or paper that has acid added to it by being dipped in an acidic solution – like coffee or tea.

You’ve probably noticed that I don’t often use tea dyed pages in my journals, and this is the reason why. The best way to avoid this is to not do it.

Now I know what you’re thinking  – But..but..but… the color, the marbling, the crinkly sound of the pages, the vintage look and feel – what do I do now?  I get it. To be honest, I love it too.

If you’re creating journals for fun and not as long-term keepsakes or places to store vintage photos or documents – go for it! There’s no reason you can’t or shouldn’t. Even with a high acid content, it will still take awhile for it to have a visible effect.

Nik the Booksmith did a video not too long ago where she experimented with adding baking soda (a base) to coffee and tea to help neutralize the acid. She checked the acidity by using the test strips, and determined it was possible to drop the acidity by doing that.  I’ve never tried this and can’t speak to how it would affect paper (or things you’d put in your journal) long term, but I think it’s an interesting experiment and maybe one to try if you can’t resist coffee or tea dying.

There are alternatives to tea and coffee dying papers that will still get you a beautifully aged look. Walnut ink or walnut ink crystals can help you create a dye and there are brands that are acid-free. Tim Holtz makes distress ink stains that you can spray over the surface of your papers to create a similar effect and they are also acid free. If you’re not worried about losing the crinkle effect, you can also coffee or tea stain several sheets of paper and scan them and then print them in bulk.

Will coffee/tea staining my papers cause them to mold?

Generally speaking, no. Coffee and tea are organic, and therefore a potential food source for mold. But so is paper. So while there is a small risk since you’re also introducing them to water, as long as you’re using clean fresh paper and rapidly dry the papers after dipping them and do so in a room that doesn’t have high humidity and/or warm temperatures – no mold should grow.

But yes, there is a risk associated. Using older papers from an old book or journal that you picked up somewhere is a somewhat different story. Many of them will already have mold spores on them just from time sitting on shelves and in old attics and basements as mold spores are all around us. These mold spores are harmless so long as they are not exposed to water, but when exposed can rapidly bloom and grow mold.  If you’ve ever had a flood in your basement, you might have experienced it. I highly recommend not risking this as active mold once you have it is difficult to get rid of and can spread quickly.

How do I fix this old paper/book/document that’s falling apart?

Whenever I get asked this question, my first question is to ask how important it is to the person and how irreplaceable it might be. This is because that will help guide you in your decision process on how you might want to attempt to fix it.

Generally, in museums we don’t attempt it and don’t recommend people try. Much of the time the things you would use to fix it, like adhesives, can do as much or more damage over time than the original tear or rip would.  Doing a proper paper tear fix usually requires a conservator, or someone with a lot of training. They are typically completed using wheat paste and Japanese papers. (You can see a video here). I’ve had training in this and still wouldn’t attempt it on anything I consider irreplaceable.

If it’s irreplaceable to you – talk to a conservator. Always.

If it’s not irreplaceable but still important, my advice would be to scan the item to save it, and print a copy to use. Put the original in a safe place like a mylar sleeve or an acid-free PAT tested archival folder so it’s not damaged further.

If it’s not important to you and you’re not worried about saving it for all time or some potential damage, you can attempt a repair yourself. I’d recommend using the paper/wheat glue method or using some self-adhering paper tape.

Whatever you do, do NOT use scotch tape. Seriously. From an archival point of a view, scotch tape is the devil. And speaking of the devil…

How do I remove this tape/adhesive/glue from my book or paper?

Short answer: You don’t. Or rather, there is no safe way to do so without help from a conservator.  Depending on the age and composition of the adhesive, it might be possible to remove it with minor damage by using gentle heat and slowly manually peeling it up centimeter by centimeter. I do not recommend trying this unless you’re comfortable with damage to the original material, as its nearly impossible to do this without it.


What does it mean to be “archival”? Should I use archival paper in my journal?

Well first, let’s talk about the term “archival.”  The term in and of itself doesn’t mean a whole lot. Archival is a term that is used as shorthand by museum and archive folks for a whole host of practices and materials. Essentially its jargon for those of us that  live in the preservation world, and isn’t very helpful to those outside of it (like most jargon!) But it holds a lot of metaphorical weight because we use it so often to refer to things we do, and people know that what we do is preserve old things – simply put.

Companies know this and heard the advice that was being given to the public about their family treasures and historic heirlooms. Some companies wanted to offer these for folks at home who want to preserve their family photos and treasures and did an excellent job of making those available.   Unfortunately, some other companies just saw the word “archival” as something that could be used to make people buy more of their product.  There is no industry standard for the term “archival” and no inspection or test that companies have to pass to use that term. So you can imagine that some companies have taken advantage of this. It can mean that you end up with varying actual standards behind the products that claim to be “archival”.

So what should you look for when you’re looking for paper or materials to use to create an archive for your family photos or in our case, an “archival” quality journal?

You want to look for the following attributes:

  • Acid free
  • Lignin free
  • PAT tested

Acid is an agent of deterioration. It will yellow and cause your paper to go brittle, and as it ages will also destroy the things around it. You don’t want acid near things you’re trying to preserve.

Lignin has a similar effect – it causes yellowing and fuzziness, and destroys the material its in and the things around it. You want lignin-free paper.

PAT tested (and passed) – this is the gold standard for preservation. PAT stands for “Photo Activity Test” and is an international standard recognized by museums, libraries and archives that lets them know that the material will not react to or deteriorate photos or other documents. The very best archival material suppliers have their stuff PAT tested and will show the PAT tested & passed symbol when it applies.

That said, for the most part acid-free and lignin-free are typically all you need (especially with paper). Just make sure it says those things specifically and not just “archival”.

Have more questions? Let me know in the comments below!


Still getting started in junk journaling? Here are a few resources you might find helpful:

How to Make a Junk Journal

Beginner’s Guide to Junk Journal Supplies


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